48 Hours in: Revolutionary Paris

Liberty? Equality? Fraternity? As France celebrates Bastille Day, explore the capital's rebellious side, says Harriet O'Brien

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:58

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Liberté, égalité, fraternité – Wednesday is the 221st anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. The mob attack on the formidable prison-fortress in central Paris is, of course, regarded as the great trigger point of the French Revolution. So right now is a salient time to take a revolutionary tour of the capital. And should it become a little too sombre, there's plenty of light relief. Not only is 14 July France's most colourful national holiday – celebrated with parades, outdoor entertainment and a great many fireworks – but the party continues for some time afterwards.

Bastille Day kick-starts a month of summer festivities in Paris, not only with music and arts shows around the capital and with free open-air film screenings at Parc de la Villette (1) ( villette.com ) but also with beach activity. This year's Paris Plage opens on 20 July, with imported sand creating beach resorts by the Seine around Quai du Louvre and Quai de la Gare and on the canalway at the Bassin de la Villette (2).

Touch down

The main approach from Britain is on Eurostar from London St Pancras, Ashford and Ebbsfleet to Paris Gare du Nord (3); the writer travelled with Rail Europe (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk ).

Flights from airports across the UK mostly arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport, 25km north-east. Six RER trains an hour provide links to Gare du Nord (3) and Chatelet-Les Halles (4) in the centre (journey time 30 to 38 minutes, one-way €8.70).

Get your bearings

Central Paris was the backdrop to the most dramatic events of the revolution. Most of the main sites lie roughly within a triangle around the River Seine. On one corner is Les Invalides (5), the military hospice and barracks. Thirty thousand weapons were stolen from here on 14 July 1789 and used to attack the Bastille, which was subsequently destroyed: its location, Place de la Bastille (6), forms a second corner of the triangle. On the third corner is Place de la Concorde (7), where thousands were executed at the guillotine.

The capital's main tourist office (8) is at 25 rue des Pyramides (00 33 8 92 68 30 00; parisinfo.com ) in the first arrondissement. It opens 9am-7pm daily. Other tourist offices are located near the Gare du Nord at 18 rue du Dunkerque (daily 8am-6pm) and near Gare de Lyon (9) at 20 Boulevard Diderot (open 8am-6pm daily except Sunday).

Check in

Stay near the original centre of Revolutionary fervour: the Standard Design Hotel (10) is a small and chic outfit at 29 rue des Taillandiers in the bustling Quartier Bastille (00 33 1 48 05 30 97; standard-design-hotel-paris.com ). Double rooms start at €150, room only.

For a flavour of the ancien régime check into Hotel des Tuileries (11) at 10 rue Hyacinthe (00 33 1 42 61 04 17; parishoteldestuileries.com ). One of Marie Antoinette's ladies- in-waiting is reputed to have owned this much-restored 18th-century townhouse. It now offers 26 stylish rooms; doubles start at €153, room only.

For classy good value amid more 18th-century atmosphere try Hotel du Panthéôn (12), presenting 36 elegant rooms on the Left Bank at 19 Place du Panthéon (00 33 1 43 54 32 95; hoteldupantheon.com ). Doubles start at €49, room only.

Day one

Take a hike

Bastille Métro station (6) has the remaining foundations of the prison off the platform of line 5. From the station, follow leafy Boulevard Henri IV down to the Seine and cross to Île St-Louis. Turn right, following rue St-Louis en L'Ile across the island. Continue over Pont St-Louis to Île de la Cité, with the great cathedral of Nôtre Dame (13) emerging to the left (daily 8am-6.45pm, free). Pillaged during the revolution, the church was at one stage used as a food warehouse for the proletarian sans culottes. Restoration started in 1845 and took 23 years.

Continue through Place Louis-Lépine passing the Préfecture de Police. At the end, on the right, is La Conciergerie (14) – a 14th-century royal palace that became a prison in the 1600s. During the revolution thousands were incarcerated here, including Marie Antoinette, before going to the guillotine. The €7 ticket includes entry to the Gothic chambers and a recreation of the former queen's cell (daily 9am-6.30pm, to 5pm in winter).

Continue south down Boulevard du Palais and cross Pont St-Michel (15) to the left bank. Turn right along rue St André-des-Arts. On the left is the passageway Cour du Commerce St-André (16), in the 1790s a hotbed of revolutionary activity. Rebel leader Georges-Jacques Danton lived at number 20 (torn down when Boulevard St-Germain was built); in workshops here German engineer Tobias Schmidt finessed the guillotine and Jean-Paul Marat published his radical newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple.

Lunch on the run

Crêperie St André des Arts (17) is housed in a creaking old inn at 56 rue St André des Arts (00 33 1 46 33 92 00). A takeaway ham-filled crêpe will set you back €3.50 - or eat in, under ancient beams, for €5.70.

Cultural afternoon

Head to St Augustin métro station (18) in the eighth arrondissement for a hidden Parisian gem. A short walk east, Square Louis XVI (19) was a burial ground during the revolution. It was here that the body of "Citizen Louis Capet", formerly Louis XVI, was dumped in January 1793, followed by that of his wife in October. In 1814 the couple were exhumed and interred at the Basilica of St Denis, in the north of Paris; the original burial site was transformed into a memorial area; admission to the tranquil, flower-filled memorial square (open daylight hours) is free. A neo-classical chapel of atonement, Chapelle Expiatoire, was created here by the architect Charles Percier in 1826. Elegantly decorated with carvings and sculptures, it is a sublimely peaceful building. It opens only 1-5pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons (€5).

Window shopping

Stroll south of Chapelle Expiatore to Place de la Madeleine (20), lined with some of the capital's most lavish and enticing shop windows: fabulous gourmet displays at delicatessens Hédiard and Fauchon, numbers 21 and 24-26 respectively; chandeliers and crystals at Baccarat, number 11; stylish homeware at Maison de Famille, number 10.

An aperitif

The Bastille district is becoming increasingly hip. Make for SanZsanS (21), 49 rue du Faubourg St-Antoine (00 33 1 44 75 78 78; sanzsans.com ) for a happy-hour cocktail (5-8pm).

Dining with the locals

Brasserie Bofinger (22) at 5-7 rue de la Bastille (00 33 1 42 72 87 82; bofingerparis.com ) is housed in a wonderful belle époque building complete with glass dome. Classic French dishes (onion soup and oysters as starters; mains such as delicately poached haddock with fresh spinach) are served with aplomb. Expect to pay €40 and upwards for two courses.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

During the Revolution traditional religion was banned and many churches were turned into Temples of Reason. One of the most notable was the grand, 17th-century church of St-Paul St-Louis (23) on Rue St-Antoine (9am-8pm on Sundays, from 8am on other days, Sunday mass at 11am). It was originally built for the Jesuits, and was restored as a parish church in 1802.

Out to brunch

A few streets north, Le Loir dans la Théière (24) ("the dormouse in the teacup") at 3 Rue des Rosiers (00 33 1 42 72 90 61) exudes a Revolutionary atmosphere, with squishy sofas, leather armchairs and walls covered with posters. Be prepared to queue: Sunday brunch here, served 10am-7pm, is a Paris institution. Dishes include courgette and rosemary omelette at €9.50.

A walk in the park

Hop on the Métro (€1.70) at the station serving the Marais, St-Paul (25) and get off at Tuileries (26). Dotted with fountains and sculptures, the tranquillity of the formal Jardin des Tuileries belies the turbulence of the past.

The gardens were part of the royal Palais des Tuileries where, between October 1789 and August 1792 Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, their two children and Louis' sister Elisabeth were held under house arrest. This ended when a violent mob attacked the palace and massacred the Swiss guards defending the royals, who fled but were subsequently imprisoned.

The great building was burnt down in 1871 during the upheavals of the Paris Commune.

Stroll west through the gardens to another Revolutionary site: Place de la Concorde (7). In the 1790s, as the Place de la Revolution, it drew great crowds to see the public executions here. At its centre was the guillotine that beheaded Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Danton and many thousands more.

Today the centrepiece of this big, busy square is an Egyptian obelisk carved in the 3rd century BC.

The icing on the cake

One of the world's greatest museums came into being largely due to the French Revolution. The Louvre (27) (00 33 1 40 20 50 50; louvre.fr ; 9am-6pm daily, to 9.45pm on Wednesdays and Fridays) was originally a 12th-century royal fortress. Under numerous kings it was extensively remodelled and in the early 17th century it was linked by a great gallery to the king's principal residence nearby, the Palais des Tuileries. When the court moved to Versailles in 1682 the Louvre was mothballed. During the Revolution the National Assembly announced that the building should become a monument to the arts, showcasing the nation's masterpieces. The Musée Centrale des Arts opened in 1793, displaying works confiscated from the king and the church. Originally admission was free, but today entry costs €9.50, though it is still free on the first Sunday of the month and 14 July, and €6 on Wednesday and Friday evenings.

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